Science Fiction, Politics and the Evolving Nature of Remakes

Though it might seem an ungracious thing to say, there’s a problem with being a science fiction fan nowadays: there are too many new books to read, and too many new shows and films to watch. Thank something, then, for summer holidays. When it’s too hot to be outside during the day, spending your time on a couch in an air conditioned room chipping away at your TBR and TBW piles seems less like a luxury, and more like a good use of your time.

One of the things I caught up on during my own summer holiday was the recent remake of that old Gen-Y favourite, Roswell (1999-2002). For those unfamiliar with it, Roswell is a high school-set science fiction drama concerning teenagers Max, Isabel and Michael, human-seeming aliens and the sole survivors of the apocryphal Roswell UFO crash of 1947. Rescued from the crash by adult aliens who later perished, they grew to maturity in archetypal stasis pods before breaking free as ‘children’ in the early-to-mid 1980s and subsequently being adopted into two different families. Aware of their alien heritage and burdened by the knowledge that they can only share their secret with each other, Max, Isabel and Michael are forced to both fit in as best they can and hide their real identities from the rest of the world. A larger narrative overlays their story—conspiracies, cover ups, shady government agencies, the typical tropes of ‘aliens amongst us’ narratives—but Roswell is really a fairly standard Bildungsroman, focusing on how they navigate teenage life and the road to adulthood.

While following many of the same beats as the original, the remake—Roswell, New Mexico (2019-2020)—makes changes both superficial and integral. Its narrative is action-driven rather than character oriented; Max, Isabel and Michael are now in their twenties; the tropes of ‘aliens amongst us’ narratives are the focus, with the lead trio’s struggle to fit in pushed to the background; some secondary characters are now either queer or missing entirely. The most interesting change, though, is that of Max’s human girlfriend/love interest, Liz. In Roswell, Liz is Liz Parker—a typical white American teenager of the time. In Roswell, New Mexico, though, Liz is Liz Ortecho—a Hispanic with US citizenship, whose father is an undocumented immigrant living and working in Roswell illegally. With the real Roswell only being a couple of hours from the Mexican border as the crow flies, this change not only makes a certain kind of logical sense—the omission of any Hispanic characters in Roswell is faintly ridiculous, after all —but also creates space in Roswell, New Mexico for themes and metaphors missing from the original, particularly of the political variety.

This emphasis on politics shouldn’t be surprising—after all, science fiction has always incorporated political elements. Of course, this doesn’t apply to every single work, as for every 1984 there’s a Max Rage: Intergalactic Badass! and for every District 9 there’s an Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. However, because one of science fiction’s main aims is to reframe the world we live in so that we can see it anew, the incorporation of political elements is barely surprising. Just look at the ‘classics,’ both old and new: H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898), George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1974), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) and Clare Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus (2015). These works are praised in large part precisely because their creators melded science fiction and politics to unflinchingly examine the world at that point in time, and the same principle applies to the creators of films and shows such as Metropolis (1927), the original The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the original Godzilla (1954), the first Star Trek series (1966-1969), the original Robocop (1987), Alien Nation (1988), Babylon 5 (1994-1998), Idiocracy (2006), District 9 (2009) and The 100 (2014-). Most interestingly, many of these works emerged at a time when politics was dramatically reshaping the world and therefore occupied a prominent place in the public’s consciousness. To name but a few: The War of the Worlds was a response to the colonialist expansion of the British Empire, its aliens with their advanced weaponry and take-no-prisoners approach a stand-in for the British forces, and its release was a push-back against the generally unquestioned nature of this expansion; Fahrenheit 451 was a response to the USA of the 1950s, in which the infamous Joseph McCarthy lead a crusade to censor art, literature and even individual opinions and beliefs, and it unflinchingly examined just where such crusades might lead.

In light of the above, the emphasis in Roswell, New Mexico on political elements once again shouldn’t be surprising. After all, we are currently living in a period of almost unprecedented upheaval, unlike the era in which the original series was produced and released.

Roswell came out at a strange point in modern history—with the end of the Cold War occurring in the late 1980s and the ‘War on Terror’ beginning in 2001/2002, the 1990s were a period of relative peace and political, social and cultural stability in the Western world in general, and in America in particular, the likes of which hadn’t been experienced since the 1950s. This era had its problems, of course, but not in a way that compares to these two ‘wars’ or previous world-changing events like the Vietnam War, Watergate and the Oil Crisis of the 1970s, or the rise of the counterculture and the civil rights movements of the 1960s. Therefore, the politics of Roswell—whose final season began airing not long after the 9/11 attacks that precipitated the ‘War on Terror’—are of the personal variety. It is a show about being a teenager, and focuses on the doubts, insecurities, contradictions and explorations typical of this phase of life. In other words, it is a show about working out who you are, your place in society and how you relate to the wider world. Identity and belonging are its preoccupations; in its case, ‘alien’ is a metaphor for the individual that doesn’t fit in (i.e. a typical teenager).

In stark contrast, the world today is experiencing a massive amount of political, social and cultural change—rising authoritarianism, the dominance of social media, rapidly growing inequality, climate change, illiberal democracies, these are part-and-parcel of contemporary life and foster a great sense of uncertainty at every level of society. Therefore, the emphasis in Roswell, New Mexico on political elements just seems right. As well, the change from Liz Parker to Liz Ortecho not only corrects a glaring omission of the original—48% of New Mexico’s population is now Hispanic, after all, up from 40% in the 1990s—but also confirms an unavoidable fact of life in Donald Trump’s America: the politics of undocumented Hispanic immigration. As much as certain rabid fans may decry the inclusion of this particular political element, if its creators had approached its narrative in any other way it would have been a blatant denial of reality for Hispanic people in America’s South-West.

This change of emphasis in Roswell, New Mexico isn’t unique. In fact, the creators of many science fiction remakes take a similar approach. While doing so is just one way of distinguishing their creation from the original, there is also a stronger factor at play—no political systems remain static, and the factors that shape the world in one era often bear no resemblance to those of the next. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that when I use the word politics, I don’t specifically mean its dictionary definition. Instead, politics encompasses the systems of power, privilege, law, legitimacy and morality that form and shape societies, which are established by governments and law-makers. Politics affects every aspect of our lives and is at least partly responsible for our position in society. It is cause of both the good and bad: racism, sexism, intolerance, inequality and injustice; as well as peace, prosperity, safety, security and welfare.

The Godzilla films are a fantastic example of the fluid nature of politics. Ever since its inception in the mid-1950s, the character has been remade so many times that it isn’t funny. In the 1954 original, Godzilla himself is a deliberate metaphor for the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a decade earlier. He is an inexplicable and devastating force from which there is no escape, and the film itself, filled as it is with scenes of urban ruin, radiation-burned victims and panicked crowds seeking shelter wherever they can, was a sombre attempt by its creators to come to terms with what had happened to their country.

Thirty years later, the political, social and cultural aftershocks of the bombs had become part of history, and yet had a new resonance thanks to renewed Cold War tensions initiated by Ronald Reagan in the US and Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR. In the middle of this febrile atmosphere and volatile environment arrived Godzilla 1985 (1985), a remake intended to reset the franchise, with a political emphasis focussed on these aforementioned tensions, the escalating arms race and the insanity of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. Godzilla himself was no longer a metaphor for atomic weapons, but instead one representing the end-point of this doctrine and the ultimate consequences of an inability to work together for the greater good.

And then there is the more recent remake, released in 2014. Just like in 1985, times had changed in the thirty years that had passed since its last incarnation—the Cold War had ended, the arms race had slowed to a crawl and Mutually Assured Destruction was all but forgotten. Instead, a new political, social and cultural problem was shaping the world: climate change. Accordingly, the Godzilla of 2014 was a metaphor for the power and fury of the natural world, and the destructive potential we might unleash and bring down upon ourselves in our unceasing exploitation of it.

In effect, what these examples show are three different versions of the same story, from three different eras, with each steeped in the particular political, social and cultural factors that shaped the world at the time. However, they aren’t the only ‘set’ of remakes that do this.

Both the 2005 remake of The War of the Worlds and the 2004-2009 remake of Battlestar Galactica are responses to 9/11—the former is an examination of a world whose peace and prosperity is suddenly upended in devastating fashion, while the latter is predicated on the fear of the ‘fanatic amongst us’—whereas the originals were mostly viewed as mere entertainment with little depth or subtext. 1951’s The Thing from Another World was viewed in a similar way, but the 1982 remake, simply entitled The Thing, is a reflection on the creeping paranoia of the renewed Cold War tensions of the 1980s. And the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers refocussed the terror of both the ‘other’ and mindless conformity inherent to the original and directed it at societal institutions of the time as a reflection of the growing suspicion and distrust of these institutions during the Watergate era.

What unites these examples is not just their status as remakes, but also their status as either ‘classics’ or quality works of science fiction. Some are even heralded as being better than the originals, and this affirmation has arguably helped pave the way for the strength of the form—remakes are nowadays a mainstay of science fiction film and television. However, a remake doesn’t live or die on its remade status alone, and films such as the 1998 remake of Godzilla, the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes, the 2004 remake of The Stepford Wives and the 2014 remake of Robocop are just a few of the many that were both critical and commercial failures. And while paling in comparison to The War of the Worlds and Battlestar Galactica et al., these unsuccessful examples are also united by more than just their status as remakes. In their case, though, what unites them is an almost complete abandonment of the originals’ status as political science fiction, in favour of simple action and spectacle alone.

And therein lies the lesson: Don’t ‘dumb down’ a piece of science fiction that once possessed depth thanks to its political elements, because these elements are often precisely what ensured its worth in the first place.

(Originally published in Aurealis #130, May 2020)

Why Retrofuturism Never Goes Out of Style

Retrofuturism is a term that tends to get bandied about willy-nilly, and has been used to describe everything from Betamax and VHS technology to the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983) and Brazil (1985), from landline telephones and early desktop computers to Metropolis (1927) and Men in Black (1997), from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to Walkman’s, and from Deloreans and jumpsuits to Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and The Incredibles (2004).

It is also, unfortunately, too-often used incorrectly.

So what does retrofuturism really mean? Why is it used incorrectly? And why does it never seem to go out of fashion?

Answering this first question is tricky, as retrofuturism is a somewhat nebulous term that can be open to interpretation. On one hand, the most simplistic definition, which you’ll find worded similarly in just about any dictionary anywhere, is that it’s a style or aesthetic considered futuristic in an earlier era. On the other hand, according to retrofuturist artist Bruce McCall, whose recent TED talk on the subject helped reintroduce it to contemporary audiences, it is an artistic method that involves “looking back to see how yesterday viewed tomorrow.” And then there’s the Urban Dictionary, which defines it as “the future as it was envisioned by people from past eras.”

Self-evidently, many different people lay claim to it and apply their own definitions to suit their own purposes. However, by doing so, a multitude of problems are thrown up. If retrofuturism simply means “a style or aesthetic considered futuristic in an earlier era” or “the future as it was envisioned by people from past eras,” then ipso-facto every piece of past science fiction can be considered retrofuturistic, as can any past technology that was considered futuristic. This is an absurd proposition, no doubt, but one that fits these definitions and leads to things like Barbarella (1968), pocket calculators, the Mad Max series (1979-1985, 2015), boom boxes, Logan’s Run (1976) fax machines and Escape From New York (1981) being considered retrofuturistic.     

In light of this, it’s perhaps best to define retrofuturism both differently and more specifically. Accordingly, to parse the definitions used by science fiction scholars and futurists, we might best call it a fascination for a future that never was combined with an ironic or unique twist on past views of the future. In this way, it is as much about the creators’ intent as it is about the aesthetic they employ – retrofuturistic works don’t happen by accident, but are instead borne of deliberate decisions on the part of their creators to appropriate and employ visions of the future that have long since passed.

In other words, retrofuturism is the revival of historical conceptions of the future. Or, to put it more plainly, retrofuturism refers to artistic works that are both steeped in nostalgia and directly inspired by the imagined futures of writers, artists and filmmakers of the past. 

But what does this mean in practise? Perhaps the best way to answer this question is by breaking down an example of a piece of science fiction that is unarguably retrofuturistic, and comparing it with one that definitely isn’t. So: Mars Attacks (1996) and The X-Files (1993-2002, 2016-2018).

Regarding Mars Attacks, director Tim Burton has never denied his retrofuturistic intentions. After all, its screenplay is based on a series of cult trading cards from 1962 – created by artists Wally Wood and Norman Saunders, writer Len Brown and art director Woody Gelman – and Burton has time-and-again acknowledged the direct influences of the cards’ visual style on his film. But even an audience with no awareness of these roots can’t help but see its retrofuturistic intentions, as Mars Attacks is crammed full of shiny-chrome, aerodynamically-ridiculous flying saucers; tubular ray-guns that shoot primary-coloured laser blasts; bright green, bobble-headed aliens with bulbous heads and enormous eyes; spherical space helmets and chunky spacesuits; towering analogue computers adorned with knobs, buttons, dials and levers; dim-witted soldiers and hawkish military commanders; and white-coated, pipe-smoking scientists who pontificate ad nauseam.

It barely needs saying, but all of these elements are hallmarks of Pulp, Golden and Silver Age science fiction, which occupied a historical period when space travel and a deep understanding of the universe was in its infancy (and are perhaps the most popular referents when it comes to retrofuturism). In fact, these elements wouldn’t be out of place in one of Hugo Gernsback or John W. Campbell’s books, and featured heavily in the exploitative alien invasion films of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, Mars Attacks is so firmly steeped in this Pulp science fiction aesthetic that it quite easily could have been a product of that era, if we look past its blackly comic tone, tongue-in-cheek outrageousness and absurdity, and high-quality special effects. But it wasn’t, and these qualities that we would need to look past are precisely what make it a product of the 1990s – such traits can also be seen in Men in Black, Spaced Invaders (1990), Demolition Man (1993), Starship Troopers (1997) and Galaxy Quest (1999). And its retrofuturistic credentials are burnished even further when we look at some of the defining themes of science fiction from the 1990s. The emergence of the internet, clone technology, virtual reality, shock-and-awe warfare – these are all hallmarks of this period, reflecting their place in the real world, and Mars Attacks bucks against them all, existing instead as an over-the-top alien invasion work that wears its nostalgia on its sleeve. Thus, we can unarguably define it as a piece of retrofuturism, for it is undeniably steeped in nostalgia and directly inspired by the imagined futures of the past, while simultaneously exhibiting an ironic and unique twist on said imagined futures.

And so to The X-Files, which none other than The New Yorker has claimed as a piece of retrofuturism. With its millennial angst, brick-like mobile phones and heavy emphasis on government cover-ups and alien abductions, it undoubtedly feels quaint and retro from our 21st-century perspective. But hindsight doesn’t equal retrofuturism, and the presence of these elements is precisely what disqualifies The X-Files from being defined as such. It is, above-and-beyond anything else, a definitive product of its time – the 1990s was the era of Y2K panic, conspiracy theories, crop circles and distrust of the government, and in which trash talk shows hosted by the likes of Jerry Springer, Sally Jesse Raphael and Geraldo Rivera regularly featured ordinary Americans who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. The X-Files rode this cultural wave, with the word “zeitgeist” being regularly applied to it, and its tagline of “The Truth is Out There” entering pop-culture parlance. Make no mistake, while it may nowadays seem retro and undeniably has some resonances with science fiction of the past – shadowy government agencies and vast conspiracies with Earth-shaking ramifications have been a staple of the genre almost since its inception – it was nonetheless never backward-looking, and its success and raison d’être never depended on the science fiction of the past.

In summary, it is this conflation of “retro” and “retrofuturistic” that leads many people to wrongly define the latter and apply it works of science fiction that are solely the domain of the former. If you look back to the some of the examples provided in the opening of this piece, this becomes blindingly apparent. The influence of German Expressionism on Metropolis might seem dated today, but it was cutting edge at the time; the original Star Wars trilogy was a remarkable work of escapism, but the chunky/ugly aesthetic of its technology was far removed from the gleaming chrome and organic design of Pulp science fiction; the “mod” style of the future portrayed in 2001: A Space Odyssey is perfectly in synch with the mod style of the late 1960s. And this becomes even more apparent when contrasted with examples such as Men in Black, which heavily relied on the gleaming chrome of Pulp science fiction and the black-suited government agents of detective fiction, or the clunky analogue technology underpinning the futuristic sweeping surveillance systems seen in Brazil, or the James Bond-esque vibe and colour scheme of The Incredibles.

In light of this, we then need to ask why retrofuturism never seems to go out of fashion. As is always the case when it comes to art, culture and the intersection thereof, we can’t definitively answer questions like these. But what we can do is make educated guesses, and when it comes to the continuing popularity of retrofuturism a strong case can be made that one of the main reasons for its continuing popularity is because it involves an exploration of the tension between past, present and future, and between the alienating and empowering effects of technology.

In effect, retrofuturism can provide a comforting and nostalgic contrast to a vision of the future that creates in us a sense of dissatisfaction or discomfort. Here we need to keep in mind that much Pulp, Golden and Silver Age science fiction – which are, as previously mentioned, perhaps the most popular referents when it comes to retrofuturism – was optimistic about both the future and the advances in technology that might lie ahead. Clean-energy jetpacks and flying cars, robots that allowed us more time for leisure and philosophical thought, colonies on the moon or on other planets, humanity united by technology, new building materials and styles that made the world safer and cleaner, advances in technology that benefit and improve the environment – these are positive and hopeful touchstones of Pulp, Golden and Silver Age science fiction, which existed side-by-side and in contrast to its more grim portraits of futures full of invading alien hordes and post-apocalyptic landscapes. In other words, Pulp, Golden and Silver Age science fiction gave us fantastic and buoyant versions of the future, ones in which life and the world around would get better and better.

But what do we have today? What does the future look like from our 21st-century present?

To many of us, it looks dark indeed. After all, we live in a world of climate change, global terrorism, massive inequality and rising authoritarianism. A world of overpopulation and societal decay, in which corporations and governments have never had more power over we, the people. A world in which technology has divided us as much as it has united us; in which new building materials and styles have, for the most part, made the world more dangerous and dirtier, rather than safer and cleaner; and in which advances in technology have tended to disadvantage and despoil the environment, rather than benefit and improve it. And we live in a world in which technology has given us fake news, social media addiction and drone strikes, rather than jetpacks, flying cars and robot servants.

The kinds of futures promised by Pulp, Golden and Silver Age science fiction has failed to materialise, and instead we’re left with all of the above and more. In light of this, it’s barely surprising that people have, in the words of noted science fiction scholar Robert Latham, “nostalgia for a time of forward-looking hope and romance.” And this is precisely what retrofuturism offers – its creators give us worlds that are better than the one we live in today, and better than the one we’ll be living in tomorrow. They give us the chance to re-evaluate technology and our relationship with it, creating spaces where it exists to benefit our lives and the world around us. They remind us that the future can be brighter than the present, and that it can be something we look forward to rather than dread and regard with pessimistic apprehension.

In short, they give us hope. They give us optimism. And they bring back positive ideals and aspirations for the future that have are too-often left behind and forgotten.

(Originally published in Aurealis #126, November 2019)

The (Not So Sudden) Rise of World Science Fiction

Both mainstream audiences and casual fans have traditionally perceived science fiction as a predominately white, Western genre. Just take a look at any of the “best of” lists out there – no matter their origin, they’re sure to be dominated by works created by white Americans and white Britons. Typically representing the visual side of science fiction are films and shows such as Doctor Who (1963-Present), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983), Bladerunner (1982), The X-Files (1993-Present), The Matrix (1999), Inception (2010) and Stranger Things (2016-2019); typically representing the written side are authors such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Philip K. Dick, Michael Moorcock, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, China Miéville and Paolo Bacigalupi. These are fantastic authors and works one-and-all; can you guess what they have in common?

In fact, science fiction began as a white, Western genre – it evolved from the “science romances” of the nineteenth century, written by white Britons and Europeans such as Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells; while the term itself was coined and popularised by the white American author Hugo Gernsback, when he founded Amazing Stories magazine in 1926. In the “Golden Age” that followed, a series of prolific white American authors dramatically expanded science fiction’s reach and potential, with those such as Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Frederick Pohl and A. E. van Vogt establishing significant reputations and strengthening the perception of the genre as one predominately white and Western.

However, although science fiction was created and codified by white Western writers, people from the wider world have been working in the genre since its inception. Czech playwright Karel Čapek gave us the term and concept robot in R.U.R. from 1920; Polish author Stanisław Lem is widely regarded as a giant of science fiction, as are the Russian Strugatsky brothers (Arkady and Boris); the films Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979) by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, based on seminal works by Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, are considered masterpieces of science fiction cinema; while black American and black Canadian authors such as Samuel R. Delany, Octavia E. Butler and Nalo Hopkinson have achieved critical and public acclaim, with their work often directly addressing the lack of diversity in the genre. And then there’s Japan, which gave us a brand new subgenre of science fiction with the release of the original Godzilla in 1954, and the art forms manga and anime.

If science fiction has actually always been a genre of the world, then why has it traditionally been perceived as a predominately white, Western one? This question is impossible to address briefly, but there are two distinct yet interrelated factors that unarguably play a part: The global domination of American culture in the wake of the Second World War; and America’s twentieth century racial politics. The first is self explanatory – American culture has and continues to shape the world, from entertainment to technology to fashion to language et al. It’s everywhere we look. It’s a fact of life (even though things are slowly changing). This brings us to the second factor.

If we take 1926 – the publication of the first issue of Amazing Stories – as the “birth” of science fiction, and America as its birthplace, then we must recognise that this birth took place a long time before the civil rights movements of the 1960s transformed American and the world. History has overwhelmingly shown that this was an incredibly dangerous and arduous era for black Americans, with the discrimination they faced applying to almost every facet of their lives, including writing and publishing. Therefore, at the same time as science fiction was emerging as an art form, in the country that was effectively setting out its terms and meanings, an entire community was almost exclusively excluded from participating in it as writers because of the “system.” In light of this, it’s perhaps unsurprising that science fiction was for a long time perceived as a predominately white, Western genre. It had existed as such for more than thirty years before anyone other than a white Westerner was allowed any real prominence; the whole time it had gained increased global popularity thanks to humanity’s inherent fascination with technology and the cultural effects of America’s incredible technological advancements (atomic power and weaponry, microchips, satellites, etc.).

The first real challenges to this perception only came during the “New Wave” movement, which began in the early 1960s and saw many of the established norms of the genre being overthrown. This was science fiction’s own version of one of the cultural revolutions sweeping the globe at that time – all around the world but particularly in the West, discriminatory barriers were coming down in many facets of life, and youth culture was driving a change to reassess the system and give a voice to the historically “voiceless.” In the case of the New Wave, part of its revolutionary agenda was to question who had claim to science fiction, and open its borders to previously marginalised and/or oppressed segments of its community. One consequence of this was that – America being America, the leader of the pack – black American voices finally achieved a place and recognition in the genre (rocky though this road still is), and kicked off a struggle in science fiction for equal rights in inclusion and representation.

But as we know, progress is slow. Not much illustrates this more than the fact that it was a big thing when Captain Kirk and Uhura kissed on Star Trek in 1968 (the first interracial kiss on television). It was a big thing, indeed – in the history of television, science fiction and the American civil rights movement. However, it can still be said that it didn’t change people’s perception of science fiction’s parameters and inclusivity, but instead merely allowed the genre representational space for more than just white Westerners, a space initially small and too-often tokenistic.

Effecting this change in the public’s perception of science fiction is something that continues to this day. But while progress is slow, it is nonetheless inexorable and ever expanding, and has recently become one of the defining issues of modern science fiction. From initially often-tokenistic space alongside the leading white Western characters to the rise of Afrofuturism and its reframing of the question of “what is science fiction?” to specific subgenres such as postcolonial science fiction that tackle these issues of underrepresented voices head-on, the undercurrents and ripple effects of previously marginalised and oppressed segments of the community finding an ever-growing place in science fiction are now so strong, that it only seems logical to redefine the genre as one that represents and includes everyone.

In effect, science fiction is slowly-but-surely being recognised as what it always has been, to a certain degree: a world genre, rather than a white, Western genre. And while this recognition initially began within the science fiction community, the wider public has increasingly been exhibiting it, something that has gained particular momentum in the last half-dozen years.

An example of this change in recognition exists in this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Awards. Firstly, the winner: Tade Thompson, a British-Yoruba author who grew up in Nigeria, with his novel Rosewater. Described by fellow author Adam Roberts as a work “at the cutting edge of the contemporary genre” in which Thompson combines “alien encounter, cyberpunk-biopunk-Afropunk thriller, zombie-shocker, an off-kilter love story and an atmospheric portrait of a futuristic Nigeria,” Rosewater is a deliberately African piece of science fiction and an alien invasion story par excellence that expertly reinterprets this tired old trope and its white, Western roots.

Rosewater winning this award is a sign of great progress in changing the public’s perception of science fiction. When we look at some of the other shortlisted works, we see that even more progress is being made – Iraqi author Ahmed Saadaw was included for his novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, as was Korean-American author Yoon Ha Lee for her novel Revenant Gun.

From the past of effectively no one but white Western characters written by white Western writers, to a present in which of six books shortlisted for one of science fiction’s most prestigious awards, three were by writers of colour including the winner – that’s a real change in what science fiction can be, and a positive step in showing that the genre does indeed represent and include everyone.

This change isn’t restricted to the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Far from it.

Chinese-American author Ted Chiang has garnered critical and commercial acclaim with his moving humanist works – his 1998 novella The Story of Your Life, adapted for the screen in 2016 as Arrival, is a supreme expression of the global nature of science fiction, and its ability to unite, represent and include all of us. With four Nebula awards to his name, as well as four Hugo and four Locus awards and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, he has acquired a reputation as one of science fiction’s most unique contemporary voices.

An ongoing debate and dialogue regarding issues of cultural appropriation and white-washing in the genre has recently been thrust into the public domain, spurred on by the casting of Western actors in roles traditionally associated with non-Western cultures – Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange (2016), Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (2017), Finn Jones in Iron Fist (2017-2018).

Earlier this year, the director of the Arthur C Clarke Award released an impassioned public statement imploring all sections of both the science fiction community and the wider publishing community, to recognise that they consist of (and exist for) a wide variety of diverse voices. He then went on to declare that the under-representation of these voices desperately needs to be addressed by everyone within science fiction’s awards community – selectors, voters, supporters and judges alike.

Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafo won Best Novella in the 2016 Hugo Awards, and the 2015 Nebula Award, with Binti; her first adult novel, Who Fears Death, won the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and was nominated for the 2010 Nebula Award; her 2014 novel Lagoon was a finalist for a British Science Fiction Association Award; and she announced in 2017 via Twitter that Who Fears Death was being picked up for development by HBO.

The runaway success of Marvel’s Black Panther (2018), a lavishly big-budget and highly-entertaining slice of Afrofuturism that attracted enviably high audience numbers around the world, has ignited new interest in Afrofuturism and expanded the public’s awareness of what science fiction can be, and is being hailed by some as the vanguard of Afrofuturism 2.0.

The literary and political/cultural rigour of what might be called New Lovecraftian Fiction has seen the rise of a perception-smashing subgenre, one that contains space for those whose voices in the wider Lovecraftian community would have historically often been marginalised. Authors such as Victor LaValle, a black American, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a Mexican-Canadian, and Maurice Broaddus, a Jamaican-American, have all used this space to combine reinterpretations and examinations of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos with a criticism of Lovecraft’s own racism and that of his era, often with an emphasis on the marginalised people of the times. More and more of contemporary science fiction’s exciting emerging voices, and many of its uniquely-innovative established voices, are hailing from traditionally non-Western backgrounds, including Ken Liu, a Chinese-American, Charles Yu, a Taiwanese-American, and N.K. Jemisin, a black American; as well as Karen Lord from Barbados, Vandana Singh from India, Deji Bryce Olukotun from Nigeria, Malinda Lo from China and Rebecca Roanhorse from Mexico. Meanwhile, a noticeable rise in science fiction produced in places as far-flung as Asia, the Pacific Islands, Latin America, the Indian Subcontinent and the Middle East, alongside a similar rise in science fiction produced by the Indigenous Peoples of the Commonwealth, has garnered the attention of the wider science fiction community.

Examples such as these cannot be dismissed as outliers indicating nothing, but instead must be accepted for what they are: evidence that science fiction is undergoing a seismic change. This change is permeating all aspects of the genre, from its meanings to its expressions, and from its breadth of representation to the reaches of its inclusivity. It is broadening the public’s perception of what and whom the genre represents and includes, and given a space to many previously marginalised and oppressed segments of the community. It is happening whether we like it or not, and is inextricably linked to a much larger broadening of perception in the wider community regarding issues of cultural appropriation and recognition, and the importance of returning a voice and place to those who have historically been rendered “voiceless” and denied a place.

Science fiction is all the better for it.

Vive la difference, as the French say.

(Originally published in Aurealis #125, October 2019)

We May Have Reached Series Overload: A Trawl Through Small-Press and Self-Published Science Fiction

The world of small-press and self-publishing isn’t perfect, but it is democratic.

In terms of self-publishing, nowadays literally anyone who has written a book and has access to the internet and some spare cash, can now deliver their work unto the world. Gone are the days when a self-published book looked like nothing more than a fancy zine; print-on-demand technology ensures that the finished product looks and feels as good as any ‘properly’ published book. Gone, too, are the days when a minimum order numbered in the hundreds, if not the thousands – most print-on-demand companies happily produce as many or as few copies as an author likes.

The small-press world is structured differently, as an author must still undergo the processes of traditional publishing: Submitting a manuscript and collaborating with others on the book’s editing, format and design. But it contains a vast landscape of publishers; no matter how obscure the genre an author works in, or how ‘out there’ their writing, a small-press publisher specialises in it. As well, the small-press author often finds a supportive and encouraging community of fellow authors writing for the same publisher, and pre-existing networks that they can use to help promote their work.

Which brings us to, well, us. In our world, all we have to do is gorge on the bounty provided by small-press/self-published authors. Without having facts or figures at hand, I’d wager that at no other point in history has so much new science fiction been available. And without investing much time at all, we can find innumerable marketplaces and promotional sites featuring fiction of every kind. In fact, we’re spoiled for choice, so much so that there even exist promotional sites which give away free books every day, or email a daily list of new books under $1.

To catalogue this deluge of new books would be an enormous undertaking. To get through a To-Be-Read pile made mammoth by the ease of click-and-collect digital purchasing, often seems a pretty-much impossible task. But to complain about the availability, accessibility and diversity of contemporary science fiction seems churlish.

However, there is an actual downside. Whether we like it or not, books are commercial products. Of course, they are also much more than that: magic doorways that transport us to different worlds, repositories of wisdom, voices of past and present generations, histories of our collective imagination, and so on. But they are still something that we can download, or walk into a shop and buy. They are an act of creativity that simultaneously exists as a commercial product, much like clothes, CDs/digital music, and DVDs/digital media. And just like these other creative-commercial products, books are subject to the vagaries of society and the marketplace—which we more commonly label as fads, phases and movements.

This has been happening to science fiction since the early twentieth century. Some of these labels were applied retrospectively, to delineate both generational change within the genre and the genre’s early evolution, as is the case with Silver Age and Golden Age science fiction. Some emerged during massive shifts in the genre’s focus, such as New Wave and Atomic Fiction. Some were initially used snootily by the old guard to describe younger writers refashioning the genre—Cyberpunk, Eco Punk. Which labels apply to which books doesn’t really matter; what’s important is that these genre aren’t static, but are instead constantly evolving and renewing.

This process still occurs. However, the phases and movements that occur today are often much more niche. As well, ‘fads’ are now a cultural factor coursing through science fiction. In the past, what might have been called a fad at the time—Atomic Fiction in the 1950s, Cyberpunk in the 1980—actually proved, in hindsight, to be a thriving subgenre that enjoyed continued popularity. Will people one day say the same thing about Paranormal Romances or High School-set Fantasy? Or will they be viewed as historically-specific artistic phenomenon that were over almost before they began?

As an example, take the gulf between a movement such as New Wave science fiction and a contemporary fad such as Zombie/Undead fiction. The former swept through the genre in the mid-to-late 1960s, reshaping its parameters. The latter is an offshoot of science fiction and horror, and has been contemporaneously popular in the worlds of traditional and small-press/self-publishing. The real difference, though, is that New Wave was a philosophy, while Zombie/Undead fiction is a specific genre with specific rules. New Wave science fiction can be as fantastical, space-oriented and out-there as the work of Michael Moorcock; or as cold, psychological and Earth-bound as that of J G Ballard; or as deranged, chaotic and inspired as that of Philip K Dick. But Zombie/Undead fiction has to be about the dead returning to life, no matter whether it’s tricked up in a literary fashion a la Colson Whitehead’s Zone One or meticulously journalistic a la Max Brooks’ World War Z. In short, New Wave was a label applied to mid-century authors who were breaking science fiction from its past, while Zombie/Undead fiction is a singular genre that just happens to be flavour of the month.

The same contrast applies to many modern subgenres—they are mistaken for movements or phases, when in reality most are simply fads that have had their time. Even a cursory search of small-press/self-publishing marketplaces shows the slow decline of Zombie/Undead fiction and other fads popular over the last decade—Paranormal Romance, Historical-Horror Mashups, High School-set Fantasy. In contrast, movements devoid of an actual genre—Eco Punk, Postcolonial Science Fiction—are proving surprisingly resilient.

One fad that we’re still feeling the effects of is the predilection of many modern authors to create series consisting of 4 or 5 (or more) enormous door-stoppers containing hundreds of thousands of words and entire forests of pages. More-than-likely a continuing aftershock of the post-9/11 boom in Big Fat Fantasy, and no doubt heavily influenced by the runaway success of authors such as J K Rowling, James Dashner and Rick Riordian (et. al.), the series has moved away from the world of Young Adult fiction and now reigns supreme in the worlds of traditional and small-press/self-publishing. As any subscriber to one of the innumerable small-press/self-publishing promotional sites out there would know, in your regular newsletter will be a plethora of new works of science fiction. Amongst them will be the latest book in Mystery Author X’s self-described ‘epic’ space opera series, or the 10th instalment in Unknown Writer Y’s self-described ‘sprawling’ cyberpunk series. There will 2 or 3 of them or even more, in every newsletter you receive—series you’ve never heard of, by authors that you’ve never heard of. This same dictate applies when visiting small-press/self-publishing markets. Amongst the showcases of niche genre-works and jobbing writers building a name for themselves, you’ll find authors whose sole dedication and focus is the series they’ve created, their stands crowded with copies of the latest instalment, be it book 5 or 9 or 11.

The current popularity of the series raises some interesting questions, the least of which is: Why? Most science fiction authors have, historically, avoided writing series. In fact, the few historical science fiction series that are still remembered are either so monumentally intricate and expansive that the form is the only way to do them justice—the works of Isaac Asimov and Michael Moorcock—or are inextricably linked to the genre’s roots in serialised pulp fiction, such as the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. And to name a few science fiction titans who rarely ever wrote sequels to their works, and never wrote entire series: Margaret Atwood, J G Ballard, Philip K Dick, William Gibson, Kurt Vonnegut and H G Wells. All of these writers—and many others who only wrote standalone books and the occasional sequel—produced substantial bodies of work, and each book within was different, featuring a brand new science-fictional world and brand new science-fictional concerns. Doing this allowed them to further the development and exploration of the themes that interested them, by focusing them through a wide variety of perspectives, locations and situations. In contrast, the length and sprawl of a series generally allows, and indeed often encourages, a drawn-out exploration of a theme from only one particular perspective, location and situation.

Case in point: J G Ballard. Chief amongst Ballard’s varied interests and themes were the dehumanising potential of artificial and highly-technological environments; the psychological implications of what might be called ‘typical’ science fiction scenarios (drowned worlds, desert worlds, dystopian worlds); and the resemblance between our ‘present’ and a science fiction ‘future’. By writing standalone books rather than entire series, Ballard was able to thoroughly explore these themes and interests in a number of different ways. Hello, America, taking place in a devastated world in which a charismatic madman rules over the partially-rebuilt ruins of Las Vegas, allowed Ballard to position the technological and commercial totems that we take for granted as quasi-religious relics, and to examine the ‘psychological hangover’ that these relics might cast over the generations to come; The Drowned World, taking place in a future in which global warming has melted the poles and flooded the planet and turned the drowned cities into tropical throwbacks resembling the primeval past, facilitates Ballard’s exploration of the differences and conflicts between natural and artificial environments, not just materially and historically but also psychologically and philosophically. Even from these oh-so-brief descriptions, we can see the thematic and symbolic connections between the two books—the juxtaposition of decaying artificial environments and flourishing newly-wild ones, the individual as both history’s witness and history’s victim, the undeniable influence our surroundings have over our psyches, technology’s severing of the ties between us and the natural world. However, the shared concerns are examined in vastly different ways, precisely because they are lensed through vastly different perspectives.

For an author, confining each perspective, location and situation to a single book can be seen to act as a helpful constraint—its length and nature forces an author to both build their world quickly and economically and to establish themes early and intelligently. This is exactly what Ballard—and other authors who only wrote standalone books with the occasional sequel thrown in for good measure—does in his work. Rather than drag out an exploration of a theme from only one particular perspective, location and situation (which the nature of a series demands), they do the reverse: They examine themes from as many different perspectives as possible. And this has historically been the norm. But not today, where the series rules over all. Which brings us back to the question of ‘why’?

This is, of course, a question without an actual answer. We can speculate and interrogate, but in the end it’s for nought. All we can really do is state the obvious: there is a real joy in well-written standalone books. The pleasure and immersion they deliver is different to that of a series, and self-contained stories have for the most part been the ‘staple’ form throughout history. Think of the classics—almost all exist as works unto themselves, devoid of the need for a single sequel, let alone a number of them. The same rule-of-thumb applies to science fiction. Would The War of the Worlds have been a better book if the story had kept going? How about Slaughterhouse Five? Or The Handmaid’s Tale? And yet nowadays it’s often more difficult to find a good standalone work of science fiction than it is the continuation of an existing series or the birth of a new one. In fact, many contemporary authors are setting out to write part 1 of a series as their debut, rather than ‘cutting their teeth’ on standalone fiction and seeing if they’ve metaphorically got what it takes to justify a series. Are their themes deep enough to withstand numerous book-length interrogations? Or are they merely drawing things out because, for a writer, staying immersed in the one world can often be easier than going out and creating more? These questions are the ones an author needs to consider, because a great book is always better than a good series.

(Originally published in Aurealis #121, June 2019)

Comedic Science Fiction: More Than Just a Laugh

Writing about his relationship with science fiction in Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons, Kurt Vonnegut stated that, “I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’… and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.” This desire is somewhat understandable, given that today, almost fifty years after he wrote these words, science fiction is still too-often regarded as an escapist/trash genre by both the general public and critics. Even though contemporary science fiction sometimes garners critical respect and attracts the attention of a wider audience existing outside of fandom, such works tend to be seen by these audiences as outliers rather than what they are: points on a quality-continuum that stretches from “great” to “terrible.” In light of this, it’s both odd and surprising that fandom and wider audiences alike often dismiss one of science fiction’s most commercially popular subgenres: comedic science fiction. If this statement seems all encompassing, take a look at any “best of” list relating to science fiction film and television (its literature is a different matter). While you’ll find high-quality works on these lists, you’ll also typically find that most are deemed worthy of inclusion either because of the complexity of their themes, or because of their unadulterated entertainment value. In terms of the former, think of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bladerunner, The Matrix, and Looper; in terms of the latter, think of the original Star Wars trilogy, ET: The Extra Terrestrial, Firefly and Pacific Rim.

Even when a piece of comedic science fiction is deemed worthy of inclusion, it’s usually for one of two reasons: the originality and joy of is comedic approach (the Back to the Future trilogy, the first series of Red Dwarf, Galaxy Quest) or its subversive and satirical edge (the original Robocop, Starship Troopers, Idiocracy). Rarely are such works deemed worthy because of the ways they embrace or reinvigorate the tropes and techniques of science fiction. In fact, it feels like these self-appointed arbiters of quality view visual science fiction as an either/or art form: it can either be funny/comedic or it can engage with the genre’s tropes and techniques. This attitude is, frankly, an insult to comedic science fiction. While the creators of comedic science fiction undeniably set out to produce works that are entertaining and funny, it cannot be disputed that they tend to also be fans of the genre, with a strong interest in its existence as a narrative form. Otherwise, why would they use it as a framework for their comedy? In other words, the “science fiction” aspect of comedic science fiction cannot be overlooked or ignored, and like “great” straight science fiction, great comedic science fiction can show us the genre anew, and make us reassess what it can say and mean.

In fact, it can often be more successful at doing this than straight science fiction. Unlike straight science fiction, comedic science fiction is less bound by the need to have its scenarios, characters and events function in logical or realistic ways (at least at an in-universe level). In straight science fiction, whatever happens in the story must, no matter how over-the-top, make a certain kind of logical and realistic sense. An adherence to continuity, as well as rational causes, reasons or explanations at the core of the science fictional framework; these are two bedrock “rules” of straight science fiction. Existing hand-in-hand with them are the accepted precepts of fiction as a whole: the law of cause and effect, realistic character response, relatable or sympathetic characters, and narrative resolution.

Because comedy typically relies on concepts such as exaggeration, caricature, slapstick, parody and absurdity, concepts such as logic and realism (and the accepted precepts of straight fiction) are often superseded. In comedic science fiction, adhering to the concepts and precepts of straight fiction can often work against the comedic effect that is intended. As an example, take a show like Rick and Morty. Would Rick be such a funny character if he was bound by the rules of logic or realism? The answer is a resounding no – he would merely be an abusive arsehole who constantly puts his grandson in danger, and ostracizes everyone around him. And if the show itself adhered to these rules it most probably wouldn’t exist – in a world of realism and logic, Beth and Jerry (Rick’s daughter and son-in-law) most probably would have thrown the freeloading Rick out on his ear the first time he endangered Morty’s life or invited a hoard of aliens into their home, and ipso-facto the entire premise of the show would collapse.

This same argument applies to most forms of comedic science fiction, no matter their differences – if they were bound by the rules of logic or realism, their narratives would be completely different. The Men in Black series would focus on paranoia, suspicion of the government and conspiracy theories a la The X-Files; Paul would revolve around a desperate road trip in which ordinary citizens are hunted down by their government; Mars Attacks would be a terrifying tale of malevolent aliens hell bent on invading and conquering Earth; Galaxy Quest would be a downbeat story about has-been actors thrown into an intergalactic conflict, and their complete inability to adjust to their newfound situation. However, while this type of “narrative adjustment” via an abandonment of the rules of logic or realism integral is integral to comedic science fiction’s raison d’etre, it isn’t the only function of comedic science fiction. Instead, it serves to allow an arguably more interesting function: a re-examination of science fiction’s typical tropes, techniques and themes, and the ways in which they are usually employed and handled. For a contemporary example that excels at this, we must return to Rick and Morty.

Rick and Morty concerns the adventures of the titular Rick and Morty. Rick, the smartest being in the galaxy, is an eccentric and alcoholic misanthrope who has moved in with his estranged daughter-in-law and her family, as a way of hiding from the Galactic Federation that oversees the show’s version of the multiverse. Morty is Rick’s 14-year-old grandson, a typically insecure and self-conscious high school student, who is frequently dragged into Rick’s (mis)adventures in space. If this set-up sounds familiar, that’s because the show’s creators have acknowledged that the show began as a “troll” of the popular Back to the Future trilogy. Note the similarities between the names Morty and Marty (Marty McFly being the teenager dragooned by the mad scientist Dr. Emmett Brown/Doc Brown). However, while the Back to the Future trilogy focused on the comedic aspects of their (mis)adventures – with the darker aspects a secondary consideration – Rick and Morty foregrounds the darker aspects and uses them as the basis for its comedic elements. For example, Morty’s responses to his and Rick’s (mis)adventures are what you would expect of a typically insecure teenager thrown into new and uncomfortable situations. In Morty’s case, though, this set-up is pushed to an extreme, and the situations confronting Morty include meeting aliens and visiting dangerous alien planets; abandoning his family and escaping “his” universe following a world-ending calamity of his and Rick’s making; encountering alternate versions of himself, and discovering that they exist solely to shield Rick from the Galactic Federation; and having his version of Earth invaded by said Federation. His responses include panic, despair, anxiety, nightmares and self-doubt, which reflect many of the typical symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder.

If the series’ creators hadn’t infused these responses with comedic concepts such as exaggeration, slapstick, absurdity and incongruity, it would be almost unrelentingly dark. And this is arguably their point – unlike Marty McFly’s casual and comedic acceptance of the events that befall him, Morty’s responses to his and Rick’s (mis)adventures are what we would presume someone would potentially exhibit when confronted with the aforementioned situations. They are “realistic” responses to these kinds of science fiction scenarios, achieving fruition precisely because comedic science fiction is less bound by the need to function in the logical or realistic ways expected of the straight variety. If we couldn’t laugh at the way Morty responds, we would scream instead, and under cover of this laughter the darker realistions of Morty’s situation slip through.

And then there’s Rick himself, a deliberate embodiment of a dyed-in-the-wool cliché (please pardon the pun): The Mad Scientist. Established at the dawn of science fiction, we need look no further than Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, H.G. Wells’ Griffin (The Invisible Man) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll to illuminate its influence on the genre. After all, these three characters are reinvented and reinterpreted every generation or so, and often sooner. The traits that bind them – overwhelming intelligence, arrogance, hubris, an aloofness borne of a superiority complex, a belief that the rules don’t apply to them – are all possessed by Rick. However, unlike them and their more contemporary incarnations – Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, Lex Luthor from Superman, Davros from Doctor Who – Rick isn’t a villain. But nor is he the endearing, absent-minded and ultimately altruistic version of the cliché, a la The Doctor, Professor Farnsworth from Futurama, or Doc Brown. Instead, Rick is a combination of the two types, exhibiting extreme expressions of their best and worst traits. While villainous Mad Scientists have such typically villainous ambitions as world domination, conquering the universe and exterminating one’s enemies, Rick’s (mis)adventures typically revolve around his own immediate needs and desires: keeping boredom at bay, accruing money to keep partying, or proving a point. He isn’t entirely selfish, though, often directing his enormous intelligence towards something that will help his family, no matter how ridiculous their requests. As well, his bond with Morty and love for him exists at his core, no matter how much he sometimes hates it.

In effect, Rick is a realistic version of the Mad Scientist cliché, neither villainous nor heroic but instead contradictory in an utterly individual and human way, made possible by the show’s comedic approach and its embrace of science fiction’s tropes. Because we can laugh at Rick’s contradictory nature, we can more easily understand it within ourselves and thus empathize. However, this device is only a part of how Rick and Morty demonstrates that the subgenre can make us look at science fiction with fresh eyes and reassess what it can say and mean. Another component lies in Rick’s attitude to life (his personal philosophy), which is tied to a question that only science fiction can answer: What would it really be like to be the smartest person in all creation? In Rick’s case, it results in overwhelming nihilism. This exists because one of the series’ major concepts has been Rick’s ability to travel across the multiverse, something that he does with gusto – his very first appearance involves him returning to his daughter’s home after having spent 30+ years there. At this point, having realized that in an infinite multiverse anything that can happen will happen, and that there are infinite versions of his own life ranging from the near-identical to the extremely different, Rick decides that life is actually meaningless. This is because each time he performs an action, an infinite number of other actions occur simultaneously across the multiverse, vastly overshadowing and rendering insignificant the action he has performed.

Rick not only intellectually understand the insignificance of a single human life amongst infinite others; he has literally seen the universe go on without him, through witnessing alternate versions of himself die. It’s unarguable that such an understanding would drive many of us into a nihilistic funk, and Rick’s responses are mostly forgivable – realising that nothing really matters, he throws his energy into looking out for number one, partying like there’s no tomorrow and drinking the pain away. These are “realistic” responses to the kinds of scenarios faced by science fiction clichés such as Rick: Wouldn’t ultimate knowledge and a familiarity with our insignificance potentially make us lonely, self-destructive and selfish? Much like Morty’s responses to his and Rick’s (mis)adventures, Rick’s behavior would be almost unrelentingly dark if the series’ creators hadn’t infused him with comedic overtones. Only through comedy can Rick’s obnoxious selfishness entertain rather than appall, and laughing at it helps us understand it. This is comedic science fiction’s greatest strength: because it can dispense with some of the concepts and precepts of straight fiction – realistic character response, relatable or sympathetic characters, narrative resolution, logic and realism – it can re-examine and show anew science fiction’s tropes, techniques and themes, and the ways in which they are usually employed and handled.

(Originally published in Aurealis #117, February 2019)

Psychological Science Fiction and Our Fascination with Inner Space

There’s no denying that the world of today resembles the science fiction futures imagined by writers of the past. From smartphones to driverless cars, social media to online shopping, holographic recreations of dead musicians to robotic concierges, retinal scanners and facial-recognition systems to talking computers and drones, advanced technology is inextricably intertwined with our lives. In fact, so ubiquitous has it become, that it has left hitherto unseen mental disorders and psychological problems in its wake.

This leaves contemporary science fiction in a strange place. Why bother imagining new kinds of advanced technologies, and examining their potential repercussions? After all, it’s more likely than not that technology’s next step in its seemingly endless progression might make these imaginings seem passé. A problem like this, while provoking debate amongst the science fiction community, has also given birth to brand-new subgenres that attempt to reconcile these problems, as well as reinvigorating moribund subgenres of the past.

Old-fashioned science fiction of the space opera kind has experienced a revival, its escapist nature acting as a means of temporarily forgetting about these contemporary issues. Climate change fiction has returned to examine one of today’s most vexing problems, one that technology still seems a long time away from solving. Steampunk is growing in popularity and reaching wider audiences, transporting the reader to a bygone time where our relationship can be re-examined. And post-apocalyptic fiction is likewise growing in popularity, as well as becoming increasingly brutal and nihilistic, arguably as a reaction to the pessimistic atmosphere permeating the modern world.

One particular subgenre, however, seems perfectly positioned to address the questions posed by our technologically-driven world: psychological science fiction. An adaptable and fluid subgenre that can easily nestle within others—post-apocalyptic, climate change, cyberpunk and literary science fiction, for example—it typically deviates from the standard science fiction concern of examining the ways in which advanced technology impacts the world around us, and examining the follow-on effects of these impacts on our day-to-day lives. Instead, it is more concerned with the way that said technology and its attendant impacts effect our psychological make-up—our ‘inner space.’

A term apocryphally attributed to J G Ballard, psychological science fiction is nonetheless most closely associated with his work, which occupied two very different conceptual positions and yet shared a focus on the ways that technology-defined spaces can influence characters’ psyches, personalities and emotional states. On one hand, works such as The Drowned World (1962), The Drought (1964), The Crystal World (1966), The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) and Hello America (1981) take place in undeniably science fictional settings, made possible by circumstances such as climate change, apocalyptic warfare or through a ‘leaking’ of time. On the other hand, works such as Concrete Island (1974), High Rise (1975), Crash (1973), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000) and Kingdom Come (2006) are nominally realist, taking place in worlds resembling the way ours was at each book’s time of writing—their science fiction elements emerge from Ballard’s focus on the ways that the increasingly-built spaces his characters inhabit owe their existence to the technologically-driven nature of twentieth and twenty-first century life.

These narrative and structural devices didn’t just occur because Ballard had a particular penchant for this kind of storytelling. Indeed, Ballard actually saw science fiction as more a philosophy for twentieth and twenty-first century life. His writings and quotes on this subject are legion, but for the purposes of this work just two will suffice. From an essay written in 1971, entitled Fictions Of Every Kind, he claims that ‘Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.’ And from the introduction to the French edition of Crash (1974), he claims that ‘No other form of fiction has the vocabulary of ideas and images to deal with the present, let alone the future.’

To put it more simply, Ballard saw science fiction as a way of describing our present and our position within it. As well, he saw it as a guide to help navigate and understand a world of exponential technological development and advancement, which changed not only the fabric of our environments and communities, but also the ways we conceive of our place within them, and the ways that we connect and communicate with each other and the wider world. However, while the term psychological science fiction undoubtedly applies to Ballard’s work and the philosophical framework behind it, Ballard himself was without question a singular writer. Steeped in psychological, psychoanalytic and psychiatric terminology, his writing style was instantly identifiable as being his alone, so much so that the term ‘Ballardian’ emerged in certain literary circles, and other writers who mimicked his style, focus and thrust were often justifiably called out for doing so. This doesn’t mean, though, that psychological science fiction begins and ends with his oeuvre. Instead, until the twenty-first century, the few other writers operating in this field used different stylistic techniques and chose different focuses for examining the ways that technology and its attendant impacts effect our psychological make-up.

But, with the world now resembling the science fiction futures imagined by writers of the past, more and more writers have begun to embrace these kinds of examinations, in new and interesting ways. As well, many of them have shied away from technologically-based scenarios as the starting points for their examinations, and instead turned to what might best be described as ‘impossible’ science fiction scenarios, such as the appearance of aliens, the almost-total disappearance of humankind and the multiverse/parallel worlds theory, perhaps as ways of accommodating the aforementioned belief that technology is advancing and evolving faster than we had ever thought possible, and so now more ‘impossible’ scenarios might not quite seem so ridiculous or unbelievable.

Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (2014) is an extreme example of the ways that advanced technology and its attendant impacts might affect our psychological make-up and our ‘inner space.’ In Vandermeer’s case, however, the advanced technology within is really a moot point—his focus is on what might happen to someone’s psyche in the face of a thoroughly inexplicable and unknowable force, rather on the technology behind this force.

For over thirty years, an uninhabited and abandoned section of the United States coastline has been sealed off by an intangible border, and is referred to as Area X. No one knows what’s really inside the border, or how it came to be—physics and biology seem strangely askew, but not in a quantifiable way. The Southern Reach is a secretive government agency charged with investigating Area X, but after innumerable expeditions, which all ended in madness, murder, terminal illness or suicide, they are no closer to understanding it.

While this scenario might seem like a hoary science fiction chestnut, Vandermeer’s focus isn’t on Area X’s detail, logic and reason for being, allowing him instead to use what could be considered a cliché as a framework for a deep dive into the ways that Area X makes his characters think and feel. Chiefly structured around two points of view—Ghost Bird, a biologist sent on the Southern Reach’s latest expedition; and Control, who has just replaced the head of the Southern Reach—Vandermeer shows us the psychological effect of Area X from both an outsider’s perspective, and an insider’s. The biologist, at first trapped within Area X, struggles to make sense of something so concretely real and yet impossible; when freed, she remains forever marked by it. Control, sifting through the previous director’s increasingly-bizarre notes while hunkered in the Southern Reach’s headquarters, struggles from a distance with the very concept of Area X, and the futility of even trying to comprehend it.

We follow them on the inner journey that Area X maps for them, and feel the emotions that they feel. In the end, as they realise that perhaps the best way to understand Area X is to stop trying and simply accept it, we realise a trick that Vandermeer has pulled—Area X can be read as a metaphor for the great technologically-driven changes happening around us, which seem both prosaic and extraordinary, visible and opaque, influential and unknowable, real and unreal.

Paul Hardy’s The Last Man on Earth Club (2011) is another extreme example. In the far future, travel between the multiverse has become a reality, overseen by an agency based on our version of Earth. Within this agency is situated a department tasked with rescuing and rehabilitating survivors of post-apocalyptic calamities on ‘other’ Earths, calamities that have rendered them the sole survivors of their respective Earths.

While such a concept allows Hardy to gleefully play with all manner of Last Man on Earth and post-apocalyptic tropes—worlds overrun by zombies, devastated by plague or nuclear weapons, rendered uninhabitable by wars between humans and cyborgs, pillaged by aliens and left in ruins —his glee is only skin deep. While not bereft of action, his real focus is on the psychological make-up and ‘inner space’ of these survivors. Hesitant to accept their newfound reality, and deeply scarred by the events they have lived through, the bulk of the book concerns the characters’ interactions with their fellow survivors and their shared lives in a rehabilitation centre. Scenes focus on group therapy sessions, conflicts with fellow survivors, their frequent inability to connect with others or move on from their trauma, and their difficulties adjusting to their changed circumstances.

Upon reflection, we soon see that The Last Man on Earth Club is really an examination of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially as it pertains to those unable or unwilling to adjust to the radical changes happening to their worlds and lives. None of us can relate to surviving an attack by aliens or hordes of zombies, but we can all relate to the difficulties involved in moving on from a traumatic event that seems to shift our world’s axis, and from which there can often seem no return.

Vandermeer and Hardy aren’t the only contemporary writers of psychological science fiction—the concerns addressed by this subgenre are so thought-provoking and relevant to the world of today that many other writers have also engaged with them, often nesting their examinations within other subgenres. Thomas Glavinic infuses Night Work (2008) with a Ballardian chill, charting the slow but inevitable disintegration of a man’s psychology and personality after an inexplicable event has left him alone on Earth—a more accomplished tale of the perils of disconnection and isolation is yet to be found. In Machine Man (2009), Max Barry uses the trope of cyborgs to look at the technology-fostered internal dislocation experienced by some people, and offers us an engineer so disconnected from ‘reality’ and so blasé about technology and his relationship with it, that he effectively upgrades his entire body. Matt Haig’s The Humans (2013) reverses the perspective of a typical first-contact story, so that we see people through the eyes of an alien rather than the other way around, allowing a thoroughly moving look at our common humanity that also raises the prospect of hope in the face of the impossible. In Things We Didn’t See Coming (2009), Steven Amsterdam presents a world wracked by environmental disasters caused by climate change, and yet rather than focus on the doom and gloom typical of post-apocalyptic fiction of this kind, he uses the scenario to look at how such a future might inspire our psyches rather than warp them, allowing us to pull together rather than tear apart. And in the world of visual science fiction, films such as Moon (2009), 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) and Anon (2018), and television shows such as Black Mirror (2011-2017) and Humans (2015-2018), use science fiction tropes as varied as clones, alien invasion and personal robots as springboards for their own examinations of the ways that advanced technology and its attendant impacts might affect our psychological make-up and our ‘inner space.’

No matter which medium you prefer, you can bet that someone is using it to create new types of psychological science fiction. After all, it is perhaps the most fitting subgenre of science fiction when it comes to understanding our modern world, allowing us to see anew the rapid rate of technological change surrounding us, as well as our own place within it and our relationship to it.

(Originally published in Aurealis #114, September 2018)

Metafictional Science Fiction: A Short History

Metafiction is a narrative technique that has been part of Western storytelling for hundreds of years: Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605-1615), Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1776), Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1852-1853), Herman Hess’ Steppenwolf (1927), Bret Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park (2005), and the oeuvres of Kurt Vonnegut, Woody Allen, Phillip K. Dick and William S. Burroughs. In essence, works like these involve the author explicitly drawing our attention to the fact that what we’re reading or watching is fictional, or has been informed by the fictions that have come before it, be it by breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the reader, mise en abyme (the appearance of a book within the book we’re reading), or the insertion of the author into their text, among many others. Because it is a technique that relies on our understanding of the mechanics of literature, our appreciation of metafictional works is deepened by our knowledge of the art of storytelling and any specific characters, stories and/or genres employed to underpin an author’s metafictional elements.

Metafictional devices roughly fall into one of two categories: they exist at either a narrative-level (within the text) or at an audience-level (outside the text), although some writers combine the two. As an example, take the difference between the comic series Fables and Planetary. Fables concerns the citizens of Fabletown, a secret neighbourhood in New York City—refugees from different worlds who escaped conquest by a villainous army and made a home on our world, and upon arrival discovered that they are also characters in our own fairy tales. The Big Bad Wolf, Snow White, Little Boy Blue, the Three Little Pigs and their ilk are both ‘real’ within Fables narrative and characters in fictional stories, an example of metafiction working at the narrative-level. Planetary, however, is very different. Concerning a group of ‘Archaeologists of the Impossible,’ it follows their attempts at uncovering the secret history of the world, which consists of a multitude of pop-culture, science fiction and genre fiction staples. Godzilla-style monsters, mad scientists, enormous insects created by radiation, anime-style digital ghosts, superheroes and their literary predecessors, and parallel dimensions are ‘real’ in Planetary’s narrative. But at the audience-level, they are a metafictional device commenting on pop-culture, science fiction and genre fiction’s influence on our own culture and society.

Metafiction has been used in genres as disparate as romance, crime, literary fiction, horror, westerns and comedy. But when it comes to science fiction, metafictional devices have been adopted wholeheartedly by some authors. This hasn’t always been the case, though. Prior to the so-called New Wave/Second Generation of science fiction, almost no works of metafictional science fiction existed. While the reasons for this are many and varied, until the late 1950s/early 1960s, science fiction was still ‘finding its feet.’ Let’s not forget that it wasn’t really codified as a genre until the early 1920s, its ‘pioneers’ creating a brand-new method of storytelling derived from a set of liminal devices shared by writers of what we now call classics—Franz Kafka, James Joyce, T S Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Edgar Allen Poe. But these pioneers didn’t just create the genre, they also expanded it over time, slowly pushing its boundaries and widening its range of themes, styles and concerns. As more and more writers began dabbling in the genre and using it in their own ways, and as the genre grew in popularity, a dynamic process took effect in which science fiction began a constant evolution. However, while these pioneers were dazzling and groundbreaking, it took the generation of writers who came after them to break the genre wide-open. Many of these writers grew up reading the pioneers, and were inspired by them, but they took what the pioneers had created and dragged it into the positive maelstrom of cultural change that defined this point in history. They moved science fiction away from its pulp roots and suffused it with a hitherto unseen degree of literariness, experimenting with form, style, perspective, chronology, structure and grammar.

These were the so-called New Wave/Second Generation writers, emerging in the late 1950s/early 1960s before dominating the field in the late 1960s/early 1970s. One of the consequences of their emergence was the birth of metafictional science fiction, which can be dated as far back as the release of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle in 1962, but didn’t really achieve momentum until the late 1960s. In the space of a decade, dozens of works of metafictional science fiction were released, many of which are now considered modern classics: Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection (1967), Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 (1969), Stanislaw Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum (1971), Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream (1972), Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus Trilogy (1975) and Kingsley Amis’ The Alteration (1977). This flood of work slowed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as the subgenres of cyberpunk and hard science fiction began to dominate the field, but it didn’t stop: Philip K. Dick’s Valis and Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation were both released in 1981, Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake in 1997, Jeff Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen in 2001, and Nina Allan’s The Race in 2016.

What these works have in common is that they all work at a narrative-level—that is, the metafictional devices used exist within the text. For example, Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history story in which the allies lost World War II and the United States are now ruled by the Germans and the Japanese, with these rulers hunting down an author who has written a book entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which details how the allies actually won the war. This manhunt is instigated as the German and Japanese rulers believe that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy will eventually lead to their downfall, due to its power as a piece of propaganda. In the end, it turns out that the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy used the I Ching to direct his writing, leaving us with the inference that a kind-of ‘universal power’ guided his hand in order to reveal the real truth: that Japan and Germany actually lost World War II, and that the characters of The Man in the High Castle actually exist inside a fiction.

Shea and Wilson’s The Illuminatus Trilogy works in a similar way. A sprawling epic that is simultaneously satirical and postmodern, it is a kind-of science fiction-influenced adventure story revolving around a number of different pop-culture conspiracy theories. Deliberately over-the-top, especially in its final act, it contains many metafictional devices: moments in which the narrative stops dead and Shea and Wilson review and deconstruct the work itself; the inclusion of a wide variety of staples and characters from works of science fiction and genre-fiction that preceded it; and numerous instances in which different characters, baffled by the outrageous nature of their adventures, question whether they are actually characters in a book. Most of the other works listed above work in similar ways. In Priest’s The Affirmation, a writer creates a complex work of fantasy fiction that eventually blends his identity with that of his main character; Delany’s The Einstein Intersection combines an original work of fiction with excerpts from Delany’s own travel diary, with the line between the two slowly becoming indistinguishable; and Spinrad’s The Iron Dream, another alternate history, concerns a post-apocalypse novel entitled Lord of the Swastika, which was written by an alternate version of Adolf Hitler who emigrated to the United States after the Great War and became a successful science fiction writer, with the entire book followed by a fictional critique that explains its framework and metafictional trappings.

However, in the late 1990s, the direction of metafictional science fiction began to change. Rather than existing solely at a narrative-level, writers began to branch out and incorporate metafictional devices that worked at an audience-level (that is, said devices exist outside the text). In works like The Man in the High Castle and The Iron Dream, the reader doesn’t need to be a war historian in order to understand what is going on. The same concept applies to works like The Illuminatus Trilogy and The Einstein Intersection—our enjoyment and understanding of these works isn’t predicated on our knowledge of conspiracy theories or Delany’s life. The same can’t be said for much of the metafictional science fiction that emerged in the late 1990s, as the success of these works is dependant on the reader’s knowledge of science fiction’s history and tropes. Without this knowledge these works can leave the reader confused or exasperated.

John Scalzi’s Redshirts is an extreme example of this change of direction. Set aboard the spaceship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union, it begins with a prologue that, to those in the know, lays the book’s metafictional cards on the table: a group of senior officers bemoan the strangely high casualty rate of low-ranking crew members who accompany senior officers on away missions. A newly-recruited ensign soon realises that something is amiss aboard the Intrepid: ensigns suffer the aforementioned high casualty rates, otherwise competent officers occasionally act incompetently, the basic laws of physics sometimes go awry, and the Intrepid boasts technology that sometimes produces last-minute inventions and medicines which are impossible to produce on demand. It soon transpires that the Intrepid’s reality and timeline are actually being periodically controlled and influenced by a trash science fiction television show from the past that has somehow been beamed into the future, and the show’s writers create thrills and hackneyed plot devices as a way of increasing its dramatic tension. All of this is, as any science fiction fan can see, a criticism of the original Star Trek series, which is notorious for featuring such cliched situations. However, this set-up, and the wild metafictional ride that follows, only really makes sense to those who know the ‘rules’ and modus operandi of Star Trek. Without such knowledge, Redshirts is a somewhat confusing book that follows unexplained rules, rather than a satirical critique of the type of lazy writing that abounds in science fiction.

Other works also revel in this type of audience-level metafictional science fiction. The film Galaxy Quest (1999) details a group of has-been actors that once starred in a Star Trek-esque show, who are abducted by aliens who believe they are actually real crew members of an intergalactic spaceship; in Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010), a time machine mechanic encounters numerous famous characters from the annals of science fiction as he tries to extract himself from a typical science fiction time loop; the stories in Julia Elliott’s collection The Wilds (2014) splice together science fiction, fantasy, and horror tropes to create works that baffles those with little or no knowledge of the rules underpinning these genres; while Gene Doucette’s Unfiction (2017) concerns a budding writer whose genre characters and scenarios enter his real life, with amusing and sometimes disastrous consequences.

So, why has metafictional science fiction changed so much? In essence, the science fiction community has moved from the fringe to the centre—‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ are no longer insults, but badges of honour; science fiction dominates our screens and bookshelves; and our postmodern age means that audiences raised on New Wave/Second Generation science fiction are no longer only seeking something as simple as a straightforward story, but also craving works that speak to their knowledge and love of the genre. And science fiction is all the better for it. In general, metafictional works tend to either be a riotous romp or an indulgent mess, but most creators of metafictional science fiction achieve the former rather than the latter, opening our eyes to the ways that science fiction has influenced the world around us.

(Originally published in Aurealis #108, March 2018)

Surrealism and Science Fiction

At face value, surrealism and science fiction seem to occupy vastly different positions on an artistic spectrum, and to share little in common. Surrealism typically resists rational interpretations, its works inspired more by dreamscapes and the irrational than by the cold light of real life. Science fiction, on the other hand, has always been rooted in logical extrapolations of the here-and-now, its futuristic worlds undeniably informed by the present-day world. However, if we look beyond these surface impressions and beyond each art form’s immediate associations—if we look beyond the spaceships and aliens of science fiction, and the apple-headed men and melting clocks of surrealism—we begin to see something extraordinary: a similar philosophy of intent and purpose.

André Breton, one of the founders of surrealism, stated in his Manifestoes of Surrealism: ‘I believe in the future resolution of dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.’ While Breton’s hyperbolic phrasing somewhat obscures his meaning, it is still a relatively easy thing to parse. In effect, he is stating that surrealist artists, no matter whether they’re working in visual art, literature or film, produce incongruous and fantastical imagery by way of irrational or unnatural combinations and juxtapositions, in an attempt to show us a different kind of ‘reality’ than that which we are accustomed to. This is his ‘surreality,’ a place where the logical and illogical exist simultaneously.

This gives context to comments by noted science-fiction critic Frederick Jameson: ‘Science fiction is a genre that restructures and defamiliarises our experience of the present.’ Effectively, Jameson is saying that one of science fiction’s chief concerns is using our present-day world as the basis for logical prognostications and extrapolations typically rooted in scientific and societal developments. This is the ‘restructuring’ part, where our world is shown to us anew by being structured in a different way. The ‘defamiliarisation’ aspect works in other ways: despite their roots in logic, science fiction’s prognostications and extrapolations also often contain any number of illogical elements. The absurd, the nightmarish, the horrifying and the unbelievable have all taken centre stage as chief components in the annals of science fiction, sharing it with the genre’s more realistic components and conceits. These illogical elements serve to take what we know and render it anew, by stripping it of its ordinariness or everydayness and inserting it into a new context. They operate in many different ways: as stand-ins for aspects of our present world (aliens are often stand-ins for ‘the other,’ intergalactic colonists are often stand-ins for imperial colonists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and so on), or as a commentary on aspects of our real world (science fiction’s grotesque mega-corporations, invasive portable technology, etc.), or as a warning of our collective folly in resisting changes to our ways (grotesque depictions of societal collapse, overpopulation and climate change, to name but a few).

We begin to see similarities and connections between the two ‘states’ that Breton believes surrealism is attempting to resolve (dream and reality), and the two states that Jameson believes science fiction is attempting to resolve (the familiar and the unfamiliar/actual reality and restructured reality). In both cases, because these sets of states exist in contrast to each other, any attempt to artistically resolve them will ipso facto result in the creation of works that usually both intellectually challenge their intended audience, and alter the audience’s standard way of thinking about and interpreting such works. To put it simply: by attempting to artistically resolve contrasting states such as dreams and reality, the familiar and the unfamiliar, and actual reality and restructured reality, science fiction writers and surrealist artists create brand new worlds that challenge our expectations and established critical approaches. Even in the most dumbed-down work of science fiction, this way of thinking applies. Take the Transformers movies as an example (which, to be frank, aren’t the most intelligent works of science fiction out there). If we cast our blinkers aside and ignore the films’ predilection for cheap thrills and style over substance, we have to admit that the juxtaposition of our ordinary, present-day reality with talking humanoid robots from outer space that can transform into all manner of vehicles, is undeniably an attempt at resolving the familiar and the unfamiliar and actual reality and restructured reality. Likewise, even the most amateurish work of surrealism is dependant on similar juxtaposition, no matter its quality.

However, at a deeper level, the similarities and connections between the juxtaposed states underlining surrealism and science fiction are much stronger and meaningful. To see this, we must stretch out imagination far enough that we can consider Breton’s juxtaposed states of dreams and reality, and Jameson’s juxtaposed states of the familiar and the unfamiliar and actual reality and restructured reality, as being nigh on interchangeable. And is this such a stretch? After all, in this context both dreams and the concepts of the unfamiliar and restructured reality share common ground: they are concepts and ideas that don’t really exist. Born of the imagination and utterly removed from the nuts-and-bolts of real life, their meanings and interpretations spring from the psychological, the emotional and the unconscious, rather than any form of cause-and-effect or logic. But, when juxtaposed with their contrasting concepts and ideas—reality (as opposed to dream), the familiar and actual reality—a whole new work eventuates, one that asks us to balance these varying contrasts in order to determine its deeper meaning.

While the similarities and connections between the juxtaposed states underlining surrealism and science fiction seem straightforward enough, a vast gulf between both forms arises because of the way that their creators express them. Surrealism, being primarily a visual art form, resists most attempts at narrative interpretation. As they are normally composed of single images, surrealist works have no need for narrative, and even forms that tend to be associated with narratives (literature, film, theatre) typically resist this association, the underlying logic defining narratives becoming dreamlike and cause-and-effect progressions giving way to the unpredictable, the nonsensical and the random. They become anti-narrative if you will.

And herein lies the problem: science fiction is a narrative form, no matter whether its medium is literature, film, television, cartoon or comic. Science fiction writers and creators tell stories, rather than present images. Even in film or any other visual medium, the narrative is the glue that holds their ideas together and gives them their ultimate meaning. This isn’t to say that, despite the similarities and connections between the philosophies underling both surrealism and science fiction, science fiction can’t achieve expressions of surrealism. Far from it—the genre can be as surreal as any of Dali or Jodorowsky’s work. The real difference is that science fiction’s surreal aspects are expressed in a different way, whereby they form part of a whole rather than being a whole unto itself, with the smartest and most ingenious writers actually integrating them into their narratives rather than have them act as mere set pieces or flourishes.

Take 1968’s Planet of the Apes as an example. Its science fiction scenario is both straightforward and wickedly clever: a crew of astronauts crash-land on an alien planet populated by talking primates and oppressed and enslaved humans. Such a scenario allows all manner of science fiction tropes to play out, from a reversal of the typical ‘first contact’ theme to explorations of how evolution might play out on planets other than Earth. However, it also allows its writers and director to successfully combine and balance a standard narrative with surrealist imagery. The talking primates, the mute humans kept caged in a zoo, the primates’ society and culture, all make sense on a contextual narrative level, while also allowing the surrealist imagery and philosophy to shine through. This is a perfect example of Breton’s definition of ‘surreality.’ Talking primates and zoo-exhibited humans are expressions of this juxtaposition between dream and reality—primates, zoos and humans are ordinary aspects of our reality, but the subversive inversion of their statuses and functions perfectly encapsulate the illogical nature of dreams.

However, it is in the film’s climax that this fusion of narrative and surrealism is best exemplified (spoiler warning, for those who haven’t seen it yet). Taylor, leader of the crash-landed astronauts, having finally escaped from the primates, sets off for the ‘Forbidden Zone’—an area taboo to the primates, for fear that it might disprove their historical and cultural narrative. On arrival, Taylor discovers on an isolated shoreline the ruins of the Statue Liberty. While this revelation turns Planet of the Apes’ scenario on its head—the planet isn’t an alien world, but instead a future Earth decimated by nuclear war—it also provides perhaps its most surreal image: Lady Liberty’s upper body protruding from the sand, her torch held aloft as if in futile defiance of the damage wrought upon the world. It is an incredible piece of surrealist imagery that blends reality and dream almost perfectly, while also serving a narrative purpose that elevates the film from standard science fiction fare to something approaching the sublime.

While visual science fiction is the medium that most successfully integrates surrealist imagery and philosophy into its narratives—think of the monolith at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a jet-black and obviously constructed object juxtaposed with the wild nature of pre-human Earth; or the ‘Oxygen Room’ introduced in the Doctor Who episode The Time of Angels (2010), a vast forest housed within the technological confines of a spaceship; or the ‘recharge mode’ featured in the television series Humans (2015), in which lifelike humanoid robots recharge themselves via a white lead which bears a presumably deliberate resemblance to the ubiquitous white-design of Apple products—written science fiction also employs this same technique, albeit in a way that relies on our imagination rather than the flights of fancy of set designers and directors. In fact, writers such as J. G. Ballard, Jeff Noon and Philip K. Dick employ it as one of the primary techniques in their writing arsenal, with the end results featuring combinations of dream and reality and the familiar and the unfamiliar/actual reality and restructured reality which are frequently beyond comparison.

In Ballard’s The Crystal World, an unexplained evolutionary event is crystallising all manner of African flora and fauna, keeping them in a suspended state of existence that makes them resemble bizarre pieces of alien art; Noon’s Vurt features dreadlocked robots, sentient bipedal dogs, and brightly-coloured, chemically saturated feathers that act as portals to an altered state of consciousness and also transform dreams, mythology and the imaginings of humanity into objective reality, with the end result being a work that is both surreal and psychedelic; while Dick’s oeuvre is crammed with surrealist imagery and often dependant on surrealist philosophy, to such a degree that many of his works have a dream-like logic that often resists logical or rational interpretation. Even a writer like Robert Charles Wilson, who is best known for exploring the emotional, psychological and societal/cultural ramifications of ‘hard’ science fiction concepts, isn’t averse to integrating surrealist imagery and philosophy into his narratives (and his isn’t the only ‘regular’ science fiction to do so). In Spin, perhaps his most acclaimed work, aliens encase Earth in a ‘membrane’ that slows time and protects humanity from the heat-death of the universe, and as a consequence the night-time sky is a black void devoid of stars and the moon which, when seen from space, resemble a jet-black disc surrounded by the myriad lights of the cosmos—a surreal image if ever there was one.

And so, while surrealism and science fiction might seem to occupy vastly different positions on an artistic spectrum and to share little in common, this isn’t actually the case. By integrating surrealist imagery and philosophy into their narratives, science fiction writers and creators can actually elevate their work above the everyday, resulting in books and films that become extraordinary works of art.

(Originally published in Aurealis #110, May 2018)

The Best Speculative Ozploitation Gems

Until the 1970s, Australian film was a moribund art form (bar the odd exception). However, with the election of the Whitlam-led Labor government in 1972 came all manner of beneficial social changes, not the least of which was the establishment of the Australian Film and Television School, the Australia Council for the Arts, and the Australian Film Commission. Coincidentally, these initiatives coincided with a publicly-accepted relaxation of prudish censorship laws and the introduction of the new R rating, resulting in a reinvigorated film industry that enjoyed both public and governmental support, which was the beginning of what many now call the Australian New Wave movement. Alongside this movement, whose practitioners embraced both a social-realist and art-film ethos, was another movement emerging from the margins: Ozploitation.

A slang portmanteau of the words “Australia” and “exploitation,” Ozploitation is essentially a catch-all term for Australian exploitation films that emerged in this period, which were greatly influenced by American B-films of the 1950s, the “New Hollywood” films of the 1960s ushered in by young filmmakers keen to challenge the status quo, and the emerging punk/DIY ethic that was slowly becoming a dominant mode of cultural expression throughout the 1970s. Typically categorised by low budgets and a “raw” aesthetic, Ozploitation covered everything from science fiction to horror, action to “ocker” comedies and frisky sex romps to creature features, and focused on Australian issues of the time rather than recreations or examinations of our past. As renowned film academic Sam Rodhie stated: “Ozploitation films set about projecting not a nostalgic rural Australian beauty, but the vulgarity, philistinism and energy of contemporary Australia. These were not the distanced and distancing vignettes of the past, or a parade of Australians buttoned up in costume.”

With that in mind, let’s turn to what I consider the best speculative Ozploitation gems.

The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

The first feature from acclaimed Australian director Peter Weir – Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Gallipoli (1981), Witness (1985), Dead Poets Society (1989), The Truman Show (1998) and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the Sea (2003) – The Cars That Ate Paris has been called many things: Blackly comic, disturbing, satirical, macabre, slow and deliberate, bizarre, surreal, and bleak. Considered a low-budget oddity on its release, in the years since it has achieved cult status and is now considered a herald of the changing nature of Australian film, from the “distanced and distancing vignettes of the past, or a parade of Australians buttoned up in costume” to a dark reflection of contemporary Australian attitudes, values and prejudices.

Set in the fictional town of Paris (an isolated outback community only accessible by way of winding mountain roads and narrow tracks), it concerns the key economic driver perpetuated by the townsfolk: Forcing tourists and lost travelers to crash their cars on the winding roads and passes, salvaging valuables from the wrecks, and using them as currency or barter. It’s a town where the normal rules of Western society don’t apply, facilitated by its remoteness and isolated nature.

So far so typically Australian, you might say – the trope of remote towns operating by their own rules is fairly standard in both our stories and history. However, what sets The Cars That Ate Paris apart is that Paris’ citizens, from ordinary working folk right up to the mayor, aren’t written as monsters or villains, but instead as ordinary people just trying to keep their town alive. Almost to a one, they are framed as friendly, nonthreatening and decent, despite the fact that they are basically psychopaths whose existence depends on death and destruction. And this is the film’s beauty. Despite Weir’s grotesque imagery, stately composition and off-the-wall conceit, at its core the film is really a social parable about the divide between rural and urban communities, the economic stagnation of the former and the dissociative effects of consumerism on them, and the repressive and outwardly bizarre nature of close-knit societies.

The Last Wave (1977)

The second film from Peter Weir on this list, The Last Wave examines the cultural divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in the face of an impending apocalypse, and the consequences of a non-Indigenous Australian denial of an Indigenous Australian conceptualisation of people, animals, spirits and the land being intertwined.

It is, in many ways, a lurid and hallucinatory fever dream, a morally complex police procedural, and a clear-eyed look at race politics in modern Australian society, filled with incredible compositions, surreal imagery and a dark and murky “look.” Telling the story of David Burton, a non-Indigenous Australian lawyer defending five Indigenous Australians against charges of ritualised murder, it focuses on just how out of his depth he is when confronted with an Indigenous Australian belief system that prophecises a coming apocalypse, challenges his worldview and sense of cultural identity, and is both steeped in the supernatural and undeniably real (within the context of the film).

A startling and criminally underrated film that is unsettling and ambiguous, it is ripe for rediscovery by a new generation and paved the way for other films that sympathetically attempted to bridge the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways of perceiving and understanding the world.

Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

Unarguably the most well known and influential example of Ozploitation, George Miller’s original Mad Max trilogy is a classic of post-apocalyptic cinema, and remains one of the most financially and critically successful Australian film franchises in history. A true master of visual storytelling, Miller combined kinetic camerawork, a “raw” mise-en-scene and rhythmic editing with eye-popping stunts, car crashes and car chases, to create a post-apocalyptic world that is vivid, brutal and undeniably “Australian.” Each film is its own kind of masterpiece, as the combination of Miller’s cinematic techniques, narrative economy and simple (but never simplistic) through-lines allow the world of Mad Max to open up around us, rather than simply get served up to us.

The original Mad Max showed us a world teetering on the edge of collapse, in which the roads are ruled by roving gangs and the few police still remaining are almost as crazy as the criminals they chase. The Road Warrior explored this world after the collapse, with society reduced to a kind-of punk savagery in which crazies and survivors are left to scavenge in the wasteland left behind. Beyond Thunderdome opened this wasteland world up even further, delivering a new kind of community built from the ruins of the old, a lawless and wild place without even a veneer of civilisation.

The world of Mad Max is one in which the car is king, gasoline the most valuable commodity and civilisation a forgotten dream. It is as punk as Johnny Rotten sniffing glue with Johnny Ramone; as brash and inventive as that of a suburban backyard full of DIY geniuses; and as tongue-in-cheek “Australian” as Paul Hogan and Steve Irwin wrestling over a crocodile. In its own words, it is a world “where the gangs took over the highways, ready to wage war for a tank of juice, and in this maelstrom of decay ordinary men were battered and smashed.”

Road Games (1981)

Eschewing the frantic visual style common to so many exploitation and Ozploitation films, director Richard Franklin combined moody compositions that emphasised scale and vastness, stately and slow camerawork, remote and unpopulated settings, and tension and suspense to infuse Road Games with an almost Hitchcockian vibe. As well, he employed a narrative device that was common to what might be called realist Ozploitation, but had yet to be used in the more speculative variety: Centering the story on a foreigner in the Australian outback, and thereby allowing the peculiarities, idiosyncrasies and Australian-isms of the characters within to be seen with fresh eyes. First used in Ozploitation in Wake in Fright (1971) and Walkabout (1971), this device allows us to enter the story right alongside the main character, and is a version of the “stranger in a strange land” trope, a storytelling device as old as history itself.

Centered on American expatriate truck driver Pat Quid, it begins in a realistic way: Hauling refrigerated meat across the emptiness of the outback, Pat entertains himself with thought-games concerning the lives and activities of other drivers sharing the road. One day, a suspicious green van catches his eye, which he later comes to believe is involved in a series of unsolved murders up and down the highways and byways. Soon after picking up hitchhiking American tourist Pam, the local police begin to suspect Pat of the murders; with Pam’s encouragement, he becomes embroiled in a cat-and-mouse game with the driver of the green van in an effort to clear his name. What follows is buttock-clenching tension juxtaposed with the foreboding and desolate expanse of the Australian outback, as the conflict between Pat and Pam and the driver of the green van escalates in a land where help is nowhere nearby and thus Pat and Pam have no choice but to rely solely on their wits.

A masterclass of understated film-making, Road Games is the perfect example of how space can define subject, and how the Australian landscape can be a character all of its own.

Razorback (1984)

Razorback is a perfect blend of dark “Ocker” humour, hyper-stylised visuals and small town creature-feature – think Wake in Fright (1971) meets Jaws (1975) via Alvin Purple (19726) and The Evil Dead (1981), and you’re on the right track.

The first feature from music video director Russell Mulcahy, it features an aesthetic philosophy common to exploitation films throughout history and borne of their typically low budgets: Go for broke. Underpinned by a tongue-in-cheek screenplay that played up its exploitation influences and ambitions, and full of kinetic camerawork, POV shots, frantic editing, bustling backgrounds, a “lived in” atmosphere, colour saturation, extreme close-ups and a cacophonous sound design, it is a truly jarring and unique movie.

Just like Walkabout (1971), Wake in Fright (1971) and Road Games (1981), Razorback is centered on a foreigner in the Australian outback. This time, it’s Carl Winters, a grief-stricken American who has traveled to the unnamed town in which Razorback is set, seeking answers to the death of his wife, a TV journalist who was investigating the town’s pet-food cannery. Upon arrival, he hears stories about an enormous razorback boar that preys on the townsfolk and was responsible for his wife’s death, setting in motion of chain of events that pits him against both the enormous razorback and the town’s set of Australian caricatures. And what caricatures they are! Broad and bordering on camp, they’re nonetheless invested with backslapping malice, a love of violence and beer and fear, and a dark sense of humour that carries an underlying threat, illuminating what nowadays is called toxic masculinity but back then was merely the dark underbelly of the stereotypical Aussie bloke. In combination with Mulcahy’s bravura visual style, they transform Razorback from what might have been just another b-grade Ozploitation film into something truly special: A film that both entertains us and asks big questions regarding identity, morality and parochialism.

The Quiet Earth (1985)

A cheeky addition from across the ditch, The Quiet Earth not only shares many of the qualities of Ozploitation cinema – a low budget, location shooting, a high-concept brought down to earth by relatable characters and visceral camerawork – but also helped reinvigorate the New Zealand film industry in the same way, moving it away from “the distanced and distancing vignettes of the past” towards something more urban and contemporary. And besides, it’s worthy of inclusion here because we Australians have never hesitated to claim a Kiwi property as our own – think Pavlova, Russell Crowe, Split Enz, Crowded House, Anzac Biscuits and Phar Lap.

A variant on the classic “Last Man on Earth” story, The Quiet Earth concerns a depressed scientist by the name of Zac, who awakens one day to find that the research project he works on has malfunctioned and seemingly left him alone in the world. At first, Zac tries to figure out what has happened; soon realising the futility of this quest, he instead proclaims himself a kind of god-king of his depopulated world, treating the empty city of Auckland as his own personal playground while simultaneously experiencing a type of psychological breakdown. He wanders the streets in the rain, playing saxophone rather badly. He moves into the most palatial mansion he can find, erects cardboard cut-outs of famous historical figures (including Charlie Chaplin, Elvis Presley, Alfred Hitchcock, Mahatma Gandhi, Richard Nixon, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Queen Elizabeth II, and Pope John Paul II), and preaches to them at length. He plays pool with himself, assuming two different personas in an acting masterclass that lasts bare minutes. And then, overcome with loneliness and becoming aware of the psychological damage this is inflicting, he becomes suicidal.

This is where things get weird. He meets another survivor, a woman by the name of Joanne, and they soon develop a friendship that quickly becomes something more romantic. Another survivor appears, a pragmatic and practical Maori by the name of Api. Now, this kind of love triangle is a staple of “Last Man on Earth” stories, typically employed to initiate conflict. And at first, The Quiet Earth is no different. However, as the causes behind humanity’s disappearance begin to be understood, and as Zac slowly realises that Joanne and Api are a much better match than he and Joanne, the film thematically changes in a radical way, focusing on self-realization, hope, sacrifice, ambiguity, and the metaphysical. And then there’s that ending! To say more would spoil what is a film full of surprises – it is simply a “must watch” piece of Antipodean science fiction.

Howling III: The Marsupials (1987)

The Howling (1981) was a masterpiece of 1980’s horror, featuring a blackly-comic script, confident performances, standout special effects and slick direction from horror maestro Joe Dante. But like many of its kin – Friday the 13th (1980), Poltergeist (1982), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Hellraiser (1987), Child’s Play (1988), and so on – its numerous sequels strongly adhered to the rule of diminishing returns. But there was an exception: Philippe Mora’s Howling III: The Marsupials. A stand-alone sequel (if you’ll pardon the contradiction), it abandoned any direct connections to the original and instead served up an original story that can really only be described as “bat-shit crazy.”

A brief summary barely does justice to its madness, but is worth a shot anyway. Anthropology professor Harry Beckmeyer stumbles upon archival footage showing Indigenous Australians ceremonially sacrificing a humanoid wolf-like creature, and shortly after he encounters Jerboa, an Indigenous Australian marsupial werewolf evolved from the extinct marsupial wolf (the Tasmanian Tiger). Shortly after this encounter, Jerboa is cast as the lead in a horror film shooting in Sydney and then falls pregnant to her human boyfriend, Donny. And that’s just the first fifteen or twenty minutes – what follows is a riotous hot-mess involving Russian ballerina-werewolves, werewolf nuns, werewolf hunters employed by the Australian Army, a visit to Hollywood, a time-lapse set in the Australian outback, spirits and living skeletons, and heavy-handed social commentary.

Featuring a who’s-who of Australian acting royalty of the time – Barry Otto, Frank Thring, Max Fairchild, Imogen Annesley and Barry Humphries (as Dame Edna Everage) – Howling III: The Marsupials is often considered “so bad it’s good,” a critique applied to many Ozploitation films. However, it is more than just a trash-tastic piece of cinema best enjoyed when under the influence, because Philippe Mora’s all-or-nothing approach results in a film so tongue-in-cheek and gleefully self-aware that too take it seriously is to miss the point – it’s deliberately schlocky, sending up the pomposity and pretensions of so many of the werewolf films that preceded it.

***

Following the success of Crocodile Dundee (1986), the Ozploitation wave slowly receded. No longer seen as outliers or curios, Australian films began to achieve international mainstream acceptance, with the far-out themes and styles of Ozploitation making way for more standard fare such as action, dramas and comedies, which are historically the most common and popular film genres. But this didn’t remain the case, as in the early 2000s a new wave of Australian film emerged, sharing the limelight with the aforementioned action, dramas and comedies. Directors who had grown up loving Ozploitation films – the Spierig brothers, Greg McLean, David Michod and Zak Hilditch, to name but a few – showed that we can still produce quality genre and speculative films that are distinctly Australian, as seen in works such as Undead (2003), Wolf Creek (2005), Rogue (2007), These Final Hours (2013) and The Rover (2014). In fact, so popular was this resurgence, and so well received was it by both Australian and international audiences, that George Miller of Mad Max fame returned to the world he had created way back in 1979, and in 2015 gave us Mad Max: Fury Road, a sequel that is arguably the best film in the series.

(Originally published on Speculative Fiction Australia, 18/11/2018)

Near-Future Satire and Our Contemporary Relationship with Technology

Science Fiction has always been concerned with humanity’s relationship with technology, positing futures extrapolated from this relationship and the culture surrounding it. From experiments with electricity to hot air balloons and rockets (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon); all the way through to the dominance of the internet and mobile communication systems (David Brin’s Earth and M.T. Anderson’s Feed); science fiction has always tried to imagine how contemporary technologies might evolve, and the impact they might have. While many of these imagined worlds are situated in far-off futures distantly removed from our present, some actually take place sooner rather than later, and some are even set in a ‘version’ of our present.

However, our early 21st Century present is a strange place, and our relationship with technology is complicated and intertwined. Gone are the days when technology was something that helped us live our lives without actually being ‘part’ of them, unlike such essentials as water, food, shelter and clothing. Nowadays, technology is so integrated with our lives that many can’t imagine how the world would function without it, or how they themselves might live, as if contemporary technology has become an extension of and conduit for their ‘real’ selves. We live in a world where ‘smartphone zombie’ is a common term; where the leaders of powerful nations conduct diplomacy via tweet; where mental illnesses such as internet addiction and social media withdrawal exist; and where a phone isn’t just a phone but instead an interface with the world.

These dramatic changes to our relationship with technology, and contemporary technology’s attendant impact on our society, pose interesting questions for science fiction. If these changes are so vast and diffuse, and the technology underlying them is evolving so rapidly, how can a convincing extrapolation be made? What kind of world can be imagined when the real world changes as soon it is defined, thanks to the accelerated pace of life? What kind of future can we imagine when our present seems to already be futuristic? After all, we carry devices which are almost unbelievably more sophisticated than those which put a man on the moon; and we share our world with driverless cars, computer created pop-stars, a planned Mars mission made feasible thanks to reality TV, and skyscrapers that are almost cities unto themselves, rising to heights undreamt of only a few decades ago.

Some writers have tackled these questions in rather interesting ways, enough to group them together in a sub-genre: Near-Future Satire. Instead of imagining a far-off future, these writers envision futures recognisable as close extensions of our own present, or in ‘versions’ of our present. Consequently, the technology of their futures tends to resemble the technology of our times—more extensive and pervasive social media; advanced wearable technology; improvements in cybernetics, bionics and robotics. What really distinguishes these writers and justifies a sub-genre of their own is that they also create extrapolations from our contemporary technology’s attendant impacts on our own society—online anonymity and trolling, a certain blasé attitude to our high-tech world, social isolation and withdrawal, the dumbing-down of society and the rise of discourtesy—and do so in ways that veer towards the satirical and comic, a technique that allows us to see these cultural impacts in brand new ways.

Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is a fantastic example: not only does she make a prima-facie unbelievable conceit both moving and convincing, but she also positions this conceit as a part of her extrapolations, and manages to pull it off. Set in an alternate post-GFC America, it concerns disgruntled couple Stan and Charmaine, made homeless by the country’s subprime mortgage crisis and are now living in their car. By chance, they stumble upon the Positron Project—a brand new community situated in the town of Consilience, which promises every resident a clean home and a job. The only catch is that on alternating months, these residents must leave their homes and function as inmates in the Positron prison system, while those who were imprisoned (their ‘alternates’) occupy their homes and take on their jobs. What follows is an outrageous tale of double lives and anonymity, surveillance systems and celebrity, sex robots and behavioural modification.

While Atwood’s extrapolations from the technology of our times are self-evident—increased surveillance systems, sex robots, retinal and fingerprint scans, voice analysers—we need look beyond them to their attendant impact on the society she has created. As an example, take the Positron Project itself. At face value, spending a month in prison in order to enjoy a month of shelter and occupation might seem like a ludicrous proposition, but is it really any different from those underpinning the wretched genre of reality TV? A genre seeped in technology, reality TV has dramatically raised the bar in terms of what is private and public, and when such private aspects of our lives as love and marriage become broadcast to the world and ‘sold out’ to attain celebrity and money, then surely selling out such a personal aspect as freedom isn’t so ridiculous? In fact, it seems to make more sense—Stan and Charmaine don’t sign up to the Positron Project for the fame or the cash, but for security and shelter. It is undoubtedly a grotesque choice, and Atwood makes hay with the absurdity of such a set-up, but it is made convincing because right now, all over the world, people have chosen to take part in equally absurd situations, for far less sound reasons. This dichotomy between the Positron Project’s ridiculousness and convincingness allows us to see reality TV’s raison d’etre for what it really is: the market-driven exploitation of those desperate enough to sacrifice private aspects of their lives for celebrity and money.

However, the Positron Project isn’t Atwood’s only extrapolation from the technology of our times and its attendant social impacts: Possibilbots, customised sex robots built by the residents of Consilience. The Possibilbots are an obvious extension of current advances in robotics, and in-and-of-themselves would merely be a typical science fiction device. However, to better show Atwood’s funhouse mirror reflection of our own world, the Possibilbots’ appearances are symbols embodying certain contemporary social impacts engendered by technology—the most popular models for men are exact duplicates of Marilyn Monroe, while for women they are duplicates of Elvis Presley. Many interpretations can be read because of these likenesses, despite their grotesque ridiculousness: a commentary on our celebrity-obsessed culture, or on the artificiality of affluent Western consumerism, or on the nostalgic longing borne of a constantly changing and uncertain present, and so on. But no matter which interpretation you settle upon, there is no doubting that each of these problems is exacerbated by modern technology—social media and the internet are perhaps the chief facilitator of celebrity culture, while affluent Western consumerism and a constantly changing and uncertain present are perhaps best symbolised by high-tech gadgetry that has been superseded before it’s on the shelves, a reading seemingly encouraged by Atwood due to the way she has given these massed cultural problems figurative high-tech embodiments.

In Haterz, James Goss’ satirical and subversive extrapolations from contemporary technology’s impact on our society are quite different—gone is Atwood’s grotesquery and bald-faced ridiculousness; instead, the humour that Goss employs might best be described as ‘dark’ and ‘morally ambiguous.’ Haterz tells the story of Dave, a ‘charity mugger’ and digital native. As the book opens, Dave accidentally kills his best friend’s Facebook-addicted girlfriend and is covertly witnessed doing so, and is consequently encouraged to go further and furnished with an ‘operating budget’ by said witness. From there, Dave takes it upon himself to ‘make the internet a better place’ by killing off all manner of Instagram stars, comment trolls, Twitter lurkers, keyboard warriors and Facebook stalkers.

Haterz is an obvious wish-fulfilment fantasy for anyone with good manners who has ever spent time on the internet. We’ve all seen it: the venom, the threats, the vitriol, the hate, all hidden by a veil of anonymity. But there is so much more to Haterz than just darkly comic and morally ambiguous wish fulfilment and schadenfreude. This is because Dave himself comes to resemble an uber-form of those people whose dark sides are given license by the anonymity of the internet, despite the fact that they’re the kind of people he originally set out to kill or discredit. And while his reasons for wanting to ‘make the internet a better place’ are initially altruistic—his first victims include cyber-bullies who have hounded people to suicide, narcissistic pop-stars who have casually ruined the lives of young teens, and corrupt business-people who have driven ordinary folk to the wall—the further Dave progresses along his darkly-humorous path, the more he seems to be just another troll desperate to crush anyone whose opinion or lifestyle deviates from his own.

In the end, ensconced behind a computer and distanced by a screen, Dave is merely another anonymous figure letting their schemes play out at a remove, a typical keyboard warrior blasé to the consequences of their actions. While he initially gets his hands dirty, so to speak, the further along his path he treads, the more automated his schemes become and the more remote he grows from them, until they typically occur without his direct involvement. Likewise, over the course of the book, the schadenfreude that he feels as he takes down his targets moves from an after-effect of his schemes to his primary motivation, whereby he begins to choose his targets purely to see them suffer, rather than to increase the degree of civility existing on the internet. This is the supreme comic irony of Haterz, and Goss’ finest achievement—what begins as a darkly comic and morally ambiguous tale of wish fulfilment turns out, in the end, to be a warning about the internet’s seductive charms, and how even those with the best intentions can fall prey to it and barely notice.

However, Atwood and Goss aren’t the only writers of Near-Future Satire—the concerns addressed by this sub-genre are so contemporary and thought provoking that many other writers have also addressed them. Eric Garcia’s The Repossession Mambo imagines a future in which the artificial-organ market rather than real estate is targeted for sub-prime lending, with devastating results for those who default on their payments; Alena Greadon’s The Word Exchange posits a future where the contemporary dumbing-down of our society has evolved to such a degree that words themselves are now marketable commodities, while a ‘word flu’ spread by an evolved version of a smartphone is rendering its users unable to speak coherently; MT Anderson’s Feed speculates on what would happen if content-on-demand and social media were fed into our brains rather than accessed via a smartphone, and how this could reinforce the life-in-a-bubble tendencies of the modern world; Max Barry’s Machine Man offers us an engineer so blasé about technology and his relationship with it that he effectively upgrades his entire body; and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story exaggerates the image-is-everything, everything-is-rated, ‘internetisation’ of contemporary life to make a case for old-fashioned humanistic values in the face of economic collapse and climate change.

In much the same way as The Heart Goes Last and Haterz, the works of Garcia, Greadon and others envision futures recognisable as close extensions of our own present, featuring technology that resembles the technology of our times. This allows them to create satirical and comically over-the-top scenarios based on contemporary technology’s impacts on our society—online anonymity and trolling, a certain blasé attitude to our high-tech world, social isolation and withdrawal, the dumbing-down of society and the rise of discourtesy—thereby allowing us to see these impacts in brand new ways, and to envisage new alternatives and responses.

(Originally published in Aurealis #104, September 2017)